A film of immense power and eerie beauty, James Cameron’s Titanic could only have been made now, not because of its technical requirements but because a cultural attitude of the era in which it is set — and a major theme of the film — has come full circle to concern us again today.
The film opens with old, newsreel-style footage of the great ship’s bon voyage, then cuts to the present day, with mini subs descending to the wreck of the Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic. The Edwardians revered their technology — Titanic was invulnerable, unsinkable. We’ve returned to that veneration — look at the world of Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), the salvager exploring the sunken liner. With the same smugness of Titanic’s masters, he jokes about the thick glass of his mini sub that protects him and his crew from being crushed to death on the ocean floor. His guys explore the wreck with advanced, remote-controlled robots. His base on the ocean surface is a riot of satellite phones, portable computers, videocameras… every kind of high-tech toy you can imagine. Lovett has every confidence that all this way-cool stuff will help him achieve his objective of finding the extremely expensive diamond that went down with the ship.
When Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) stands at the bow of Titanic and shouts with joy, “I’m the king of the world!” it’s not just him who feels that way. Jack speaks with the same kind of glorious arrogance that allows the White Star representative to suggest to the captain that they race to New York, and with which the captain agrees and pushes the ship to her limits, firing all engines. But as Lovett explains, the captain has no experience with a ship this big — he doesn’t know that he won’t be able to turn it in time when an iceberg is spotted. Titanic is a wondrous machine created by human hubris, and it will be destroyed by it.
A remarkable computer recreation of the sinking Lovett shows to the old Rose (Gloria Stuart) cleverly gives us a roadmap to understanding what’s to come. Those seconds of animation will play out in near real time over the course of the film’s final two hours. Cameron wants us to understand the shock of those on the ship as their utter faith in Titanic is shattered — the tycoons who order cocktails while the water rises, the women who refuse to put on their unsightly lifejackets. Ironically, it is only an appeal to scientific thinking — which fostered such devout faith in the first place — that overcomes the crew’s protests that the ship can’t sink, when Andrews (Victor Garber), the master shipbuilder, assures them that sinking is a “mathematical certainty.”
“The former world has passed away,” says a priest leading prayers as Titanic nears its end. The 1912 sinking was the spiritual end of the Victorian era and the true start of the 20th century. No more would science and its products be only boons. World War I loomed on the horizon, with its warfare by tanks, airplanes, and poison gas. With Titanic came the capacity for death on a massive scale — no longer would small numbers of people die when someone screwed up. Even the car in the backseat of which Jack and Rose (Kate Winslet) make love — and are perhaps the first youngsters ever to do so — is symbolic: here is another machine that, along with the privacy it would allow teenagers, would alter society almost beyond recognition of the Victorians.
Does Cameron want us to wonder whether there’s an iceberg right ahead for us today? Y2K, global warming, genetic engineering… will arrogance and unpreparedness again lead to disaster? When history looks back and asks what the hell we were thinking, playing with fire, will Titanic illustrate the problem all too well?
Titanic is an extraordinary filmic achievement, an elegy for the twentieth century at its end. I believe it will only be seen as more and more profound as the years pass and we gain greater historical perspective on our own times.
Oscars Best Picture 1997
unforgettable movie moment:
Another film full of unforgettable moments, but this is one of my favorites: His ship listing dangerously, near to death, Andrews, with the tenderness of a father caressing his child, reaches to a mantle clock to adjust its hands.